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The Adoration of the Magi Cameo: 16th c.; Mount: c. 1700

Onyx, silver gilt | 3.4 x 6.5 x 1.5 cm (cameo) | RCIN 65175

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  • Large oval light brown onyx cameo with open silver-gilt collet mount with suspension loop.

    The scene, deeply undercut, depicts the Adoration of the Magi. To the left, under a thatched stable roof, sits the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child on her lap; Joseph stands behind her. The Magi advance in procession from the right with the star above to the centre left. They are accompanied by three pages, a camel and a horse.

    Technically this cameo is a masterpiece of virtuoso carving. The layers of the stone have been exploited with the greatest care: the head of one of the Magi is cut in the dark layer, whereas the star above is yellowish white and almost free-standing. A sense of space and perspective has been created as the camel’s head and neck - which are light coloured - fade into the darker layer, behind the group of pages. The procession of the figures, their animation and the different colours used for the coats of the Magi all give a sense of movement. The Magi and their retinue which have been carved in an almost painterly fashion. The horizontal drill hole through the back of the cameo is possibly evidence of the reuse of an earlier stone.

    A North Italian, 16th century origin is suggested although the cutter of this outstanding gem remains unknown. The names of Matteo dal Nassaro or Dominicus Romanus have been tentatively suggested.

    The cameo was first recorded in an inventory drawn up by Mrs Purcell sometime between the death of the Queen in 1737 and her own death in 1755. The posthumous inventory of her curiosities and medals describes the cameo as ‘An Onex of the Adoration of the Kings’ in the ‘Cabinet of His Majesty’s Library’ at Kensington Palace.

    This object demonstrates Queen Caroline’s sophisticated taste in cameos which must have been nurtured in the court of her stepfather, the Elector Johann Georg IV (1668-94), in Dresden, where the schatzkammer collection was held in the Grünes Gewölbe. Caroline also spent much of her youth in Charlottenburg, the home of her guardian Sophia Charlotte (1668-1705), which housed another renowned treasury of works of art. It is likely that Caroline was also aware of the significant collection of cameos and antiquities brought together at Salzdahlum, the residence of Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1633-1714).

    Text adapted from Ancient and Modern Gems and Jewels in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, London, 2008 and The First Georgians; Art and Monarchy 1714 – 1760, London 2014

    Probably acquired by Queen Caroline; first recorded in an inventory compiled before 1755 (BM.Add.Ms 20101).

  • Medium and techniques

    Onyx, silver gilt


    3.4 x 6.5 x 1.5 cm (cameo)